A Brief History of Welfare in America

brief history of welfare

This week I listened to another audiobook courtesy of the Overdrive app and my local library. If you have a smart phone, tablet, or e-reader, I highly recommend you ask your local library if they have the Overdrive app available. There are tons of audiobooks and e-books you can check out for free.
Anyway, when I was scrolling through audio titles recently, I came upon a book called $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. My first response to the cover material and introduction was skepticism. For as much as I know about poverty and hunger, I still did not believe that this extreme level of poverty was possible in America. Between SNAP, Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security Disability, welfare, WIC, private charities, and private donations, I could not believe that there were people with no job AND who were turned down from these social security nets.

As the authors, a sociology professor and a social work professor, began to unwrap their research, I could see the pockets of this level of destitution that exist here in the United States. I still had trouble finding sympathy for some of the subjects because of their terrible life choices. The authors did not go digging for the most innocent victims of poverty, to be sure. I am also not completely sold on some of their conclusions. Their plan involves a lot of expansion in government services and job creation, yet they offer few if any suggestions about how to fund such programs.

But feelings and solutions aside, the most valuable part of this book in my opinion was the historical context it gave to American welfare programs. So using this book as my source, today’s post is a review of that history.

The Great Depression
Prior to the Great Depression in the 1930s, government welfare programs were virtually unheard of in the United States. But when things got desperate, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted several pieces of legislation aimed at putting Americans back to work and providing for those who were unable to care for themselves. Many of the programs (such as the Works Progress Administration which put Americans to work on public works programs) expired or were discontinued when the Depression ended. Others continue even to this day, including Social Security for the elderly and disabled, Medicare and Medicaid health insurance. One of the programs that came out of the Depression era was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), commonly known as welfare. AFDC provided a cash safety net for families with children who found themselves in a desperate situation.

The Great Society
In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson greatly expanded social service programs, including AFDC, as part of his “Great Society” initiatives. Johnson’s goal was to eliminate poverty and racial inequality in America through a series of legislation which expanded existing social programs like Social Security, AFDC, food stamps, and Medicare/Medicaid. It also created Head Start, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The 1970s and 1980s
Reaction to the Great Society programs were mixed. While it provided tremendously for struggling Americans, many felt that it rewarded indolence and unwed procreation. Edin and Schaefer argue that welfare was widely unpopular after the Great Society because it was at odds with deeply held American values like self-sufficiency, the primacy of family, and the value of hard work. They site a study where the majority of Americans in a survey group stated that they believed that the government was not doing enough to help the poor, and in the same survey they responded that welfare was too expensive. Americans were concerned that welfare was trapping people in a cycle of dependency, and they complained of costly abuses of the system. Ronald Reagan made welfare reform a campaign issue in the late 1970s, and the popular support for welfare reform helped get him elected.
Also during this time, the food stamps program was renamed SNAP, and a program using an Electronic Balance Transfer (EBT) card rather than paper food stamps was instituted to cut down on the (illegal) sale of food stamps, a popular survival strategy for people with no cash income.

Welfare Reform
For all the rhetoric, Reagan was not able to push though significant welfare reform. The issue continued to be a popular campaign topic but difficult to enact. In 1991/92, Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton took up the mantle, promising to “end welfare as we know it.” Once elected, President Clinton set out to reform the welfare system using aspects of a plan proposed by Harvard professor Dr. David Ellwood. Elwood’s plan proposed a system that encouraged work through a combination of cash welfare and job training, with limits on welfare that would encourage individuals to wean off the system and guaranteed jobs in government if nothing was available in the private sector. As the various welfare bills made their way through committees, the House, the Senate, and onto the President’s desk (where two welfare reform bills were vetoed), the legislation looked less and less like Ellwood had imagined. The final result was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which virtually eliminated welfare as we knew it and instituted a new work-based program. It replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a program that supplied cash welfare with strict time limits and work requirements designed to prevent long-term welfare dependence. The results have been mixed. Proponents are quick to point out that the welfare rolls have shrunk dramatically, but opponents point out that the number of families suffering from lack of resources, and the strain on private charities have increased as a result of the reforms.

The System Today
The TANF program was reauthorized in 2005 with slight adjustments. Following the advent of the Great Recession in 2008, Congress enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a temporary addition to TANF designed to get Americans through the recession. It provided a temporary TANF emergency fund (2009-10) as well as jobs programs aimed at stimulating the economy and improving American infrastructure through public works programs.
In 2010 the TANF program was reauthorized for a second time.

It’s not easy to tell the whole story of American welfare in 1000-ish words. I know this does not cover every argument for and against the programs. But it does provide you with a basic understanding of how we got to where we are today. Edin and Schafer argue that the old system was out of sync with American values and full of holes, but they also argue that the current system leaves many people with few legal options. They propose further reforms that focus on wage and workplace protections, and work opportunities, among other ideas.

This feels a bit scary, like opening Pandora’s Box, but if we agree to be civil I think we can have this discussion. What POSITIVE changes would you like to see in the way the federal government treats the poor? More mental health services? An increase in the minimum wage? Leave a comment!

3 thoughts on “A Brief History of Welfare in America

  1. One of my ideas, and I’m no economist, is to have two minimum wages. The minimum wage for ages 16-18, and a higher minimum wage for adults. The teen minimum wage would come with even more restrictions than we currently have about kids working: maximum hours/week, maximum shift lengths, a limit on how late at night or early in the morning a teen can work, what dangerous things (knives, chemicals, ladders, etc.) a teen can and cannot work with, etc. This leaves employers to choose between teens at, say, $8/hour but really restricted, or adults with fewer restrictions but who make $10 an hour. I can definitely see this being abused, but our current system is also terribly abused. To address workplace abuses (a HUGE issue according to Edin and Schafer), the states could set up a toll-free number where workers could call for advice and recourse. It’s just a thought, I’m sure it has flaws I haven’t thought of. Be sure and comment with your thoughts!

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    1. $8/hr for a kid who has never worked and has no skills seems high, but I think the idea is good. I agree that kids should work a limited number of hours per week and hours per day (for the good of the kid and as a deterrent to hiring cheaper kid labor and dumping adult), and would add a requirement of maintaining at least a “c” average in school.
      I lament the loss of industrial arts and office occupations programs in high schools. not all kids should going to college. many should be doing national (civilian) service, apprenticeships, technical schools, internships and so on.

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      1. I like the GPA idea! I’m not married to $8 an hour, I just thought it was a good round number. You wouldn’t want the teen and adult minimum wage too far apart, though, it would encourage abuse.

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